Monday, September 8, 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I'm late to discovering British writer Jojo Moyes, and only recently learned about her 2012 novel Me Before You with this past week's casting announcements of the movie adaptation. I had a chance to pick up Me Before You on Friday and read it over the weekend.

Louisa Clarke is a twenty-six-year-old woman still living at home in the small British village where she was born. She has just lost her job at the Buttered Bun, the main cafe in town, as owner Frank heads back to Australia at the news that a new cafe is moving in to town. 

Louisa has to find a new job immediately as her family relies on what little income she can bring home: her parents, her ailing Grandad, and her sister Treena and her young son Thomas. After trying out a few jobs recommended by the Job Center (but not the opening for a pole dancer), Louisa is given an interview for a caregiver position. She ends up working for Will Traynor, a previously successful businessman who, after a accident in London, is bound to a wheelchair. Lou is meant to take care of him on a daily basis. He's young, depressed, and the job is not anything Lou expects.

Over time, Lou realizes that the reason for her presence in the Traynor home is not exactly just to keep Will company: she is there to try to prevent him from committing suicide, which he attempted before she started working for the Traynors. Will's quality of life is not anywhere near where he would like it to be. Previously, Will bought and sold big companies. He traveled, he skydived, he went on adventures. He lived big. He is not prepared to continue living the life he has been saddled with.

So begins Lou's great undertaking of changing Will Traynor's mind through a series of adventures designed to show Will that his life is still worth living. And Lou's life, too, begins changing along the way. I loved Me Before You and have added Moyes's books to my to-read list, especially The Girl You Left Behind, which I've been hearing so much about!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn

This summer, I bought and read all of Morgan Matson's new contemporary YA novels. Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, Second Chance Summer, and Since You've Been Gone. Morgan's books blend aspects of Sarah Dessen's and Deb Caletti's. She writes strong YA romances that also have interesting, complex characters and situations. When I found out that Morgan Matson also writes under the pseudonym "Katie Finn," I bought Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend, the first book in a series about protagonist Gemma's summer in the Hamptons. I had actually received Broken Hearts as an ARC at a recent conference, but forgot about it completely. I ended up buying the hard cover copy of Broken Hearts, and now both copies are shelved together. Sometimes knowing just that extra bit of information about an author and their other publication history (which you don't always get with a new publication, especially one written under a pseudonym - knowing that Morgan Matson was also Katie Finn is what led me to this book!) is just enough to create interest in a book that is otherwise indistinguishable from a pile of other ARCs. Morgan Matson - and Katie Finn - are now on my permanent "to-read" list, and I'm so excited about the news that Matson is beginning work on a new novel.

Broken Hearts follows teenage Gemma after her break-up with long-term boyfriend Teddy right before summer vacation. Gemma has plans to travel with Teddy to Colombia for the summer where they will be participating in a HELPP program (Humanitarian Education Learning through Progressive Programming). Dating Teddy has changed Gemma's interests and activities. She takes on Teddy's causes (mostly environmental initiatives) and swaps out movie dates for documentary dates. But she doesn't mind. She's happy to be with Teddy, and when he suggests they go to Colombia, she thinks it's a good idea (even if her idea of the program is more movie than documentary):
When Teddy had first told me about this volunteering program, I had assumed it would mean doing things like planting gardens and maybe teaching children to sing, until my best friend, Sophie Curtis, pointed out that I was actually thinking of The Sound of Music. I hadn't realized until I got the application forms that this program involved things like building houses and digging latrines. (pp. 2-3)
So when Teddy breaks up at her while they're shopping for travel supplies at Target, Gemma watches her summer plans vanish. Her mom and stepfather - expecting Gemma to be in Colombia - already have plans for the summer and insist that she can't stay home alone. Cue Gemma's invitation to stay in the Hamptons for the summer with her father, who is living with his writing partner so they can complete a new screenplay. The Hamptons should sound like a better option than building houses in Colombia to Gemma, if not for the fact that the last time she stayed there with her father, things went horribly wrong. She's not sure if she can face up to the damage that she left behind five years ago. 

But the Hamptons is Gemma's only choice, and armed with a brand new break-up haircut, she decides to go. En route, Gemma is mistaken for someone else, and this case of mistaken identity causes her to go by her best friend's name - Sophie Curtis - the entire time she is in the Hamptons. Her hair cut helps to conceal the fact that she's Gemma, the girl who ruined lives and left a lot of damage behind her. As Sophie, can she make amends with her ex-best friend Hallie and Hallie's brother Josh, who Gemma might be falling for? Or is it all going to go wrong?

The sequel, Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold, comes out next year, and hopefully there will be another Morgan Matson book again soon! And I love all of the coffee references in Finn's novel, where the iced soy vanilla latte - extra vanilla - takes center stage as Gemma's beverage of choice. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I've been a little behind in posting book reviews this last month, mostly because I have been preoccupied with the launch of my own! The launch of my second YA novel - Swimmers - was held at the Lethbridge Chapters a few weeks ago, and I was so happy with how it went. I've been reading a ton in between, including finally tackling Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series just in time for the premiere of the TV adaptation. As a result, I have a huge backlog of books waiting to be reviewed and posted here. 

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley is one such book. I read it at the same time that I devoured This One Summer and Through the Woods - at least a month and a half ago. I unintentionally picked up the three graphic novels at the same time, which is coincidental because they are all written and illustrated by Canadian artists. Although they were all on my to-read list, I hadn't had a chance to pick them up until I was in Calgary near the beginning of July, where they were displayed together. I've been a fan of Bryan Lee O'Malley since Lost At Sea, and his popular Scott Pilgrim series (and the subsequent movie adaptation) made Seconds a much anticipated book.

Seconds follows a young chef named Katie, who is fresh off the success of her first restaurant "Seconds." It's about to exchange hands, freeing Katie up to start another restaurant, the location of which is currently under renovation. Katie lives above "Seconds," an attic-like loft that is haunted by a house spirit. Late one night Katie has a run-in with the spirit, and is given the recipe for an easy do-over of her past mistakes:
1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake anew
Katie uses her "do-over" to reverse an event that happened at the restaurant, where one of the waitresses was burned in the kitchen. Suddenly, it's as if it didn't even happen, and Katie begins planning other do-overs in an attempt to make her life more and more perfect. Including getting back her ex-boyfriend. And picking a new location for the restaurant. And setting her future on another path. 

Seconds feels like a YA novel at times, or at least it has one foot firmly planted in new adult literature. I read once that if young adult literature is about firsts - first love, first job, first experiences - than new adult literature is about seconds. That literary category certainly fits Seconds, a book that's all about Katie trying until she gets her life right. The secondary characters are also a strong component of the book, especially 21-year-old waitress Hazel, who has the best style ever for an illustrated character. Hazel also knows quite a lot about house sprites, and helps Katie when she becomes lost in her do-overs. 

Seconds was a great way to round out a trio of amazing Canadian graphic novels this summer. Katie reminded me of a female Scott Pilgrim at times, although her story is definitely her own. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

I first encountered Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki's collaborative work in 2009 through a course at Mount Allison University. Skim was on the book list, and was an excellent contemporary addition. I have been hearing about This One Summer all summer, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I finally picked up a copy for myself. I loved the format of the book, novel-sized and shelved in the YA Graphic Novels section. Skim was shaped more like a picture book which suited the double-paged illustrations. The blurbs on the back of This One Summer are amazing, with recommendations from YA greats Deb Caletti, Julie Halpern, and Stephane Perkins, and comic artists Hope Larson, Craig Thompson, Lucy Knisley, and Vera Brosgol. The blurbs certainly set the tone for the novel, a graphic coming of age story firmly located in the category of YA lit.

This One Summer starts with Rose's trip with her parents to Awago Beach, where they spend every summer. I loved reading this book right after Morgan Matson's Second Chance Summer, another book that focuses on summers away from home and spent at a lake cabin. A staple of Rose's summer home is Windy, her best friend out at the lake who is just a little bit younger than she is. Rose and Windy spend every summer together. This summer they rent horror movies from the corner store, Rose's way of impressing an older boy who works behind the counter.

While Rose and Windy seem largely untouched by tragedy - they still seem like normal kids hanging out during the summer - tragedy is all around them. Rose's mom miscarried in the ocean the summer before and struggles with coming to terms with the fact that their family of three might not grow larger. Conversely, one of the teenage girls who hangs around the corner store is pregnant, and the father of the baby (the boy behind the corner store counter) won't return her calls. Rose and Windy find themselves in the middle of other people's tragedy, and it's heartbreaking to watch them come to terms with issues that they previously didn't have to know about or understand.

One of my favorite aspects of This One Summer was the Canadiana scattered throughout, both in the text and the images. Rose's parents are drinking out of Tim Hortons cups on the way to Awago, a U of T bumper sticker is stuck to the back of the family car, there are Twizzlers for sale at the corner store. This One Summer is an amazing follow-up to Skim, a beautifully illustrated coming-of-age story that happens over the summer.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

I picked up three amazing graphic novels at Chapters recently and they happened to all be by Canadian authors: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, and Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley. I had read other standalone publications by Tamaki and Tamaki and O'Malley, but not Emily Carroll (although I'd read one of her short comics in a collection!). I found Carroll's collection shelved in the YA Graphic Novels category at Chapters, and the five truly terrifying stories inside are perfect for teenage readers. 

Through the Woods is a collection of short, illustrated stories that lean into the horror category, while also connecting to many traditional fairy tales and folk tales. They intially reminded me of Neil Gaiman's short story collections Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors because of the mash up of horror and fantasy and real life. 

"Our Neighbour's House" is the first story in the collection, and it ended up being my favorite. Three sisters are left alone in their isolated house. Their father disappeared seven days before, giving the sisters a single command: if he doesn't return in three days, they are to pack up their things and go to their neighbour's house. The sisters don't follow their disappeared father's instructions, and they slowly start disappearing, too - one by one. The story provides an amazing tie-in to "Little Red Riding Hood," showing that Carroll can twist traditional fairy tales to suit her stories. 

"A Lady's Hands Are Cold" is one of the most gruesome stories in the collection, Carroll's take on the "Bluebeard" tale. A young woman has just wed a rich man who lives in a large house, where "The halls of her new home were tall…and cold, papered with stiff stripes." When she goes to bed at night she is haunted by a "soft, sad song," one that leads her to find the previous bride of her new husband.

"The Nesting Place" feels more contemporary than any of the other stories, which have more of a medieval feel. A young woman goes to stay with her brother and his fiancee in the country. While she's there, she realizes that her brother's fiancee might not be all that she seems, and slowly uncovers the mystery of her past. 

I loved this collection and I'm looking forward to sharing it with teachers in September at the University of Lethbridge's Lit Fair, organized by the Faculty of Education!